Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Why you can't have evidence for gods being gods.

There are many definitions of 'god'.  I'll start off by making it clear the definitions I'm not dealing with.  I'm not considering 'gods' who are intelligent and powerful aliens who can do things that seem magical (a good example of such an alien is 'Q' in Star Trek).  I'm not dealing with beings who can create a world that seems real to us, such as the Machines in the Matrix trilogy.  I'm not dealing with the version of the Christian god written about by the physicist Frank Tipler who attempts to explain miracles in terms of physics in his book "The Physics of Christianity".   Why aren't I dealing with such gods?  Because they aren't what most believers want gods to be - they can't provide ultimate judgement and ultimate forgiveness; they can't give ultimate meaning; they can't provide eternal bliss or eternal punishment.  What I'm dealing with is beings that have powers that are truly 'supernatural', and that includes the Christian god - the Alpha, the Omega, the creator of all things and the source of all morality.

I have a couple of arguments that deal with the question of evidence for such beings:

1. The argument from complexity.

The Catholic Church insists that their god is ultimate simplicity, but that's just not on.  A being that is infinite, eternal and all-knowing and all-powerful is exceedingly - perhaps infinitely - complex, as that being contains all knowledge, and all wisdom.  This complexity is a real problem when it comes to evidence for this god, as just about anything else is simpler.  This includes vast galactic civilizations that have existed for billions of years.  It includes Star Trek-level cultures that can destroy a world with a phaser bank, and can cure most illnesses with a wave of something that looks like a pepper pot with lights.   So, if you come across what seems like a miracle, or you have some internal mental experience that feels like religious revelation, there are many alternatives of lesser complexity you have to consider before you allow for the possibility of the Catholic god.  The complexity problem has been expressed beautifully by Arthur C. Clarke, who said 'any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic', and by David Hume, who said that claims of miracles are never to be trusted, because there are always simpler explanations.

2. The argument from supernaturalness

The word 'supernatural' is the label for attributes of gods which are 'beyond Nature'.  The problem with this label is that it's never specified what 'beyond Nature' is supposed to mean.  Nature as we know it involves particles like atoms, electrons, photons and so on.  So, presumably, a supernatural being manages to get things done in ways that don't involve any such particles.  But that isn't an explanation of what they are actually doing to perform miracles.  Even if you can have reliable evidence that what is happening doesn't involve familiar particles, that evidence is in no way evidence for 'beyond Nature', it's only 'beyond what we know'.  So, from a practical point of view, evidence for the supernatural is definitely a problem.  It gets worse when we consider that a common definition of supernatural is 'beyond the reach of science'.  This makes evidence for the supernatural impossible by definition.

It's worth at this point clearing up a common misconception.  Sometimes evidence is considered to be supportive of the supernatural, when what that evidence is actually for is a thing that is believed to be supernatural.  For example, a primitive tribe might consider planes flying over their rain forest to be gods.  When asked for evidence of these supernatural gods by another tribe, they point up at a metal machine high above.  Of course, planes aren't supernatural (although I have to say that they feel like magic to me).  What I mean by 'evidence for the supernatural' is evidence that a thing has supernatural nature.

So, whichever definition we choose for 'supernatural', we reach an impasse.  We either have to try and demonstrate that something is beyond Nature, which is impossible, or we have a property of beings that is defined as being beyond empirical testing, so demonstrating its supernatural nature is impossible.

So, gods, by their definitions, are beyond reach of evidence.  No evidence is sufficient to show that what seems like a god or an act of a god isn't some simpler alternative, and according to some definitions, evidence isn't even possible to test a god's divine supernatural nature.


Robin said...

It is interesting that atheists so often argue that God could provide evidence of Her existence by various kinds of miracles. You are basically arguing that they are wrong.

Robin said...

I would also suggest that if you can't define what supernatural means, that anything that is the case could be considered as a different kind of natural - then you also cannot define what "natural" means.

That is a problem for those like Richard Dawkins, Sean Carroll who advocate a position called "Naturalism" and say that this metaphysical claim has won the argument and is not even worth arguing about any more.

What you say supports my position about that, Naturalism is a metaphysical claim that cannot even be defined.

Brian Carnell said...

Just because "supernatural" is an incoherent concept (as it appears to be), it does not necessarily follow that "natural" is also incoherent.

Robin said...

If you are saying that whatever is the case, whatever it happens to be, could be regarded as "natural" then "natural" is an incoherent concept.

There is a famous joke about an argument that proves Materialism is the case that starts with the following definitions:

D1. "Materialism" means "Everything that exists is matter"
D2. "Matter" means "everything that exists".

I think that you could substitute "Naturalism" and "natural" there.

I would define the concept of "supernatural" with an analogy. Suppose I have a computer model of a universe, acting according to a set of laws. I can observer any part of the universe without disturbing it and without being detected. I can alter things in the model without having to define my actions in that universe as part of its laws.

There is no fact of the matter about where I am, according to the laws of that universe.

I am "supernatural" with respect to the laws of that universe.

Not a perfect definition, but I think a good working one. We don't need to worry then about how a "supernatural" being is observing without being observed or can be observing the entire system without being anywhere "in" the system, or can change things without the changes necessarily having to make any physical sense with respect to the laws of that system.

Steve Zara said...

I don't think it makes sense to consider 'natural' as a relative term. You may be able to observe all of another universe, but if you exist in a form of reality that contains physical laws, then you are certainly 'natural' too. The point of the Christian god (for example) is that he isn't some sort of 'relative' being, in some higher level of reality, he is the ultimate creator.

Incidentally, the creation of another universe and the ability to observe it from the 'outside' is the theme of a rather good book by the science fiction author Gregory Benford

Robin said...

I don't think there is really any fact of the matter about what words mean, it really depends on what you mean by natural.

I don't know if it is really a problem for God propositions.

As I said before, the extent to which you regard any proposition as being amenable to disconfirmation is the extent to which you regard it as amenable to evidence.

I would regard God being defined as "Necessarily existing intelligent being who is the ultimate creator of all contingent things"

Anonymous said...

the end of eternity by Isaac Asimov

Luke Vogel said...

Nicely argued, Steve. I got here via Richard's tweet, I'm glad he's signaled he agrees.

Marcus Small said...

Supernatural is a very slippery term it can mean anything from elves and ghost to God. Problem is that only the latter is strictly speaking supernatural. Natural has the same origin as the word nativity, that is, something that has been born or has a beginning. Therefore it follows that the likes of ghosts, elves etc, certainly in a traditional Christian cosmology are not supernatural, there are as natural insofar as they have an origin, a beginning, a natus as you and me. God on the other hand is defined as being eternal, without beginning or end. Super-natural also implies over and above, as with Weston super mare being on or above the sea rather than below it. Above, below, beyond etc all imply space and place. God is not ‘above’ nature ‘super’natural. That would impose limits on that which is defined as limitless. It would be better to speak about the non natural.
In short, to say that God is supernatural is only to say that God is without an origin, a beginning.

Robin said...

I can only go back to the point that to say "P is a proposition which cannot be amenable to evidence unless it is disconfirming evidence" does not make sense.

To agree with both of the following propositions:

1. God or gods are not amenable to evidence
2. There is almost certainly no God

is to affirm a contradiction.

Conversion Tube said...

The only problem Robin is there is no need or requirement for your #2.

It is perfectly acceptable to accept point 1 and we done with the whole concept God. It is only a concept at this point, so throw it up on a shelf to discuss with philosophy students and then continue about your life behaving like normal. Normal being acting like a methodological naturalist.

There are many other things in life we have no evidence for. Santa, leprechauns, unicorns, earth inhabiting aliens. At no point is anyone ever required to affirm there is almost certainly no aliens, Santa, unicorns. It's not a requirement.

Not knowing an absolute answer is OK, its fine.

We can operate as secular non believers in a reasonable, logical world without pondering your #2.